This year for Christmas we traded snow for sandy beaches.
Marco and I flew home to Connecticut a few days before Christmas to be with my family. It was quite a shock going from sunny LA to snowy CT!
Back at home vacation prep was in full swing, we ran around town for a couple days picking up last minute beach-reads at the local bookstore and scheduling last-minute spray tans. No stone was left unturned!
When the day finally came, we all piled into the car clown-style and trundled off to the airport for a very late night flight to San Juan.
First day in Puerto Rico! Having arrived late, we consequently slept late (these things do happen) and eventually we rolled out of bed, down the stairs, and into the nearest coffee shop for breakfast and beverages. Unfortunately Max came down with a fever two days prior, so he and Mom stayed behind at home to catch a later flight when he was feeling better. No worries, it was just one of those little 24-hour bugs!
So, while we waited there was an endless amount of exploring to do and acquainting ourselves with the little city center. We walked around towards the ocean and stopped at the lawn by the old fort to watch cruise ships coming into port.
Knowing the aforementioned ships were about to unload tremendous amounts of people into the harbor, we decided to hop and skip our way in the opposite direction to a nearby hotel that boasted its own private beach. Although we weren't staying at the hotel, they let us sign up for a snorkeling adventure at their scuba center, which gave us free rein of their outdoor area.
I think snorkeling is one of my favorite activities. There's so much to see while you're just floating around! Our guide took us all the way around a sea barrier that had become overgrown with coral, and was thus teeming with fish. He showed us all sorts of things, let us hold a starfish, and tried to point out the neighborhood octopus, but no luck there.
After pulling ourselves out of the water and peeling off the snorkels (mine left a memorable ring on my face) and flippers, we cozied up in some long chairs in the setting sun with pina coladas in hand (picturesque, right?). Eventually somebody got hungry so we packed up, cleaned up, dressed up and moved out!
Dinner was at a fabulous rooftop bar called Éter. They had no problem seating the six of us at a tall table with a great view of the island, and we quickly ordered drinks (a different one for each of us)!
The menu focused on tapas, which was fine with me. Just short of ordering one of everything, we picked a number of tasty looking items and sat back to wait.
Full and happy, we made our way home and spent the rest of the night playing a vigorous game of Catan, the family favorite.
(Watching the Beatles documentary behind us)
We had a little more trouble finding breakfast the following morning. Not wanting to repeat our first breakfast location, we attempted two new ones but one seemed to have vanished off the map, the other was closed. (Unfortunately I suppose a hurricane and pandemic in quick succession will do that to an island).
Charlotte finally found us a little place that served things like french toast and pancakes with eggs. Simple fare, nothing unusual. We may have overwhelmed them with our numerous party of six, but we weren't in a rush!
Back at our airbnb we slipped into swimsuits and grabbed some towels. Destination: the beach. We picked a local strip of sand and settled down at the end under some palm trees, away from everyone else. Dad brought out some goggles and went down to the water to look at some fish. Marco and I pulled out our books and divided up the real estate on our shared towel (we could only fit one in our luggage between the two of us).
(Lillian and *napping* Marco)
(Charlotte and John)
(Ants on a popsicle stick)
Several hours later and after a nap or two, we went home to change and prepare for the arrival of Max and Mom! We waited patiently down in the harbor by a little restaurant and bar, ordering more drinks (hey, it's a vacation!) and watching the emergency services vehicles form a Christmas parade through the streets of Old San Juan- complete with a waving Santa Claus and snow made from copious amounts of bubbles.
*Notice we are almost all in the same seated position out at a bar as we were in the airbnb kitchen.
When Mom and Max finally arrived from their long journey, we traipsed merrily through the streets and found our reservations at a great local restaurant only too happy to serve us their favorite dishes!
Dad ordered fish and it came complete with an eyeball.
Our adventure the following day really was a show-stopper. After a very early breakfast at the diner up the road, we were picked up by the Jerry's Adventures van and our two guides proceeded to drive us far outside the city. Bear with me, I know it sounds wild and a little sketch.
(Waiting for the van)
They took us to the top of a mountain and let us get out to wander around while we got a quick geography lesson from waaaaay up on top of the island. You could see for miles!
(Too bright, couldn't see anything)
Then we piled back into the van with the rest of our little tour and after some very skinny roads and crazy inclines, hopped back out at the edge of a forest. Time to go find a waterfall!
The van in question:
(Smaller waterfall we scaled on our way to the main event)
When I tell you nobody expected the size of this waterfall... nobody expected it. I've never seen one so large and exciting, especially so close! Pictures don't even come close to capturing the scale.
Our guides showed us the best ways to climb the rocks (wear socks, they give you better grip than bare feet), and let us wander around under the waterfall. Think incredibly powerful (and cold) shower that you can't turn off.
Dripping and smiling, we tugged our shoes back on and picked our way back through the forest to the van. In all it took several hours, we passed one other group on our way, and it was definitely not a leisurely stroll through the woods. The guides were crucial to making sure we stayed safe and on the path (and they took a few photos for us in between). 10/10 would recommend Jerry's Adventures.
On our way back to Old San Juan, they pulled over at a little restaurant by the side of the road and had the chefs in the back prepare as many of the local dishes as would feed our group. It was absolutely delicious and one of the best meals I had the entire trip.
I fell asleep on the way home and they took a photo of me all in good fun. (They warned us they would if anyone fell asleep. Clearly I was unbothered.)
Back at the airbnb the family split up. Mom, Max and Dad went to the beach. My sisters, Marco, John and I went to poke our way through some of the shops lining our street, and we each picked out a fancy paleta ice pop with custom toppings. Did we spoil our dinner? Maybe. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Christmas Eve dinner with the whole family was in a brand new restaurant, hardly two weeks old and tucked away by the old convent-turned-hotel, right next to the church. It was a last minute decision, as most other places were either closed or booked for the holiday. The food was delicious and we all shared family-style. I can now claim to have tried seafood and squid-ink paella.
On Christmas day Mom made breakfast for everyone, some of us having gone to the local market the night before to pick up ingredients. It was delicious and homemade eggs, toast, sausage and orange juice. We piled onto the couches in our living room and watched Christmas Mass on the ipad.
(Beautiful Mamma facetiming her family back home!)
A little while later, a van picked us up and drove us out to Luquillo, near the eastern edge of the island, for a day of ATV riding! It was my first time on an ATV and I definitely enjoyed it. The adventure center also seemed to offer horseback riding, UTVs and go-karts, though we didn't explore the other options, as well as a large number of barn cats.
The ATV guides took us all around the forest, through fields and up mountains. We weren't allowed to take photos *during* the ride (safety first folks, no texting and driving), but we did have an enthusiastic guide ready to take all sorts of family pics at the designated stopping points!
We arrived back at the van all muddy, but having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Our driver brought us to the beach in Luquillo and showed us the string of small restaurants lining the sand that were open for dinner. We picked one and sat back.
Back at home, the evening's entertainment consisted of a murder mystery game! Some of us got very into our roles (*cough cough* Rose).
Last day in Puerto Rico! We got up at the crack of dawn to catch a little bus that took us to a harbor (I forget where, I fell asleep and woke up upon arrival) where we signed some waivers and picked up snorkels. We joined our group and boarded a large catamaran, and our boat crew took us into open water with party music pumping from our on-deck speakers. Definitely not a private tour but they do say the more, the merrier! A little while later we found ourselves pulling up to a deserted island alongside a couple other boats and offloading onto white sandy beaches. It was absolutely wonderful.
(Check out those storm clouds in the background! Thankfully they skipped over us!)
We hung out there for a couple hours, eating prepared sandwiches and sipping pina coladas (a theme). I did as much snorkeling as I could manage and the biggest thing Marco and I saw was a sting ray! Plenty of other fish to see as well on our way around the coral.
Maybe we'll move in for a bit!
Back in San Juan, we picked up our already-packed suitcases and tugged them over to one of the bigger hotels (our airbnb already having been reclaimed by our host). The hotel let us stow our bags while we promised to buy drinks and fries from the bar, and we sat down in the sand to read and pass the time.
Eventually we walked down the road to a little restaurant for dinner and they split us into two tables in the back and we ordered our last Puerto Rican meal. I'd like to remember that Marco ordered what had to be the most garlicky pasta I have ever tasted, but it was so good you couldn't help but finish the whole thing.
Not as good, our flight was delayed two hours. So instead of leaving at 1am, we got stuck waiting until 3 and the worlds loudest and crankiest toddler absolutely screeched the entire flight home. I can guarantee everyone on that plane was in the same mood when we landed in New Jersey four hours later.
Luckily we all made it safely home to shower and curl up for a nap in front of the fire. Mom made a wonderful chicken dinner and we polished it off with chocolate pie for dessert. The perfect ending to a perfect vacation :)